Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On writing endings

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on writing came from my father, on whom I often rely to critique my work. As a journalist, I’m frequently under a tight deadline, and as a freelancer, I can’t expect a lot of feedback from editors; typically their response is either thumbs-up or thumbs-down, without explanation either way. So I often ask my father to read through my work and let me know of any disjuncture in logic or any annoying word repetition (or, my biggest bugaboo, superfluous use of adverbs).

But he was referring to none of the above when he gave me this most useful piece of advice, in response to a question from me about whether the end of an essay resolved the topic effectively enough. “You worry too much about endings,” he said. “When your readers get to the end of a piece, they’re just glad it’s over.”

These words always make me smile for their bluntness, but I took his suggestion to heart. I still try to come to a reasonably satisfying conclusion in my writing, but I don’t labor too much over the final paragraph. And quite often, when I’m struggling with an ending, I finish it only to decide to lop it off and close with what was previously the pen-ultimate paragraph – proving, I suppose, that I’ve tried too hard to sum up, and was in fact done a little bit before I realized I was done.

Moreover, being both a reporter and an essayist, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s just not an effective use of time to worry too much about endings. For essays, good endings do matter: the right conclusion can give the entire topic lasting merit and resonance. But reporters know that an editor can choose to lop off a story at any point based on available space, and laboring over a final sentence would be a waste of time since you don’t know for sure that the final sentence – or paragraph – you worked on so hard will even make it into the final version.

There’s a place for beautifully styled endings – speeches, essays, works of fiction short or long – but there are also times when lack of defined ending holds artistic weight. Last winter, I had the opportunity to see the magnificently crafted play “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts at the Music Box Theatre in New York. It was a mesmerizing performance about a fabulously dysfunctional family – and every time you think things can’t possibly get uglier or more contentious, they do. Each confrontation that seems like it surely must be the end for this tortured family only leads to yet another dreadful confrontation. It’s like getting lost in a cave; you watch it with the sense that you might just keep going deeper and deeper into subterranean regions without ever emerging into the light.

I was thinking about the challenge of endings earlier this week when I drafted a book review for a fiction blog, Everyday I Write the Book. Editor Gayle Weiswasser wrote back and asked if the file I sent her might be missing the last paragraph, as the review seemed to end more abruptly than mine usually do.

Book reviews are especially challenging to conclude; it’s so difficult to avoid that favorite line from elementary school book reports: “If you want to know what happens, read the book!” or its variation (and my father’s favorite from his years of teaching middle school): “I recommend this book to anyone who likes horses” (or baseball, or political biography, or family dysfunction). I wrote back to Gayle to tell her that in general recently I’ve been trying to write shorter, and wrapping things up more quickly is one way to do this. Staying within prescribed word count has often been a hurdle for me, and blogs are almost too tempting in that unlike printed pages, they don’t compel you to stay within certain limits. But I told Gayle I could work on the ending more if she thought I should.

She didn’t, though; she ran it as it was. And when it appeared in her blog, it looked fine to me. Though I hadn’t wrapped up my thoughts or formulated conclusions in as verbose a form as I usually do, it felt complete as it was.

So I’m trying to take Dad’s advice to heart more often when it comes time to end a piece. People don’t care how you conclude; they’re just glad it’s over. Or, as the composers of Broadway musicals allegedly used to say, make sure people leave the theater humming the final tune. Unrealistic with a book review, perhaps. I’ll be content if they leave my work – whether it’s a review, a blog entry, an article or an essay -- simply thinking they’d be willing to read another one by me.

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